By: Joel Davis
Two columnists for dailies in Texas and Oregon have been fired after writing pointed opinion pieces critical of President Bush’s handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Columnist Dan Guthrie, an employee of the Grants Pass, Ore., Daily Courier since 1991, and Tom Gutting, 23, city editor for the Texas City (Texas) Sun since June, were fired within days of writing columns that incited overwhelmingly negative reader response. Both papers apologized in print for the columns.
Publishers at both dailies would not say if the columns led directly to the firings, but they appear to have played central roles, especially at the Texas City Sun, where Gutting wrote, among other things, that Bush on Sept. 11 “was flying around the country like a scared child seeking refuge in his mother’s bed after having a nightmare.”
While Publisher Les Daughtry Jr. declined to discuss Gutting’s firing, he did write a Page One apology in the 5,966-circulation, Galveston Newspapers Inc.-owned Sun as well as an Op-Ed piece titled, “Bush’s leadership has been superb.”
Although Gutting regrets not showing the column to the publisher or managing editor before it appeared, he told E&P it was not required, which Daughtry acknowledged in the apology. Gutting added that this was his first newspaper job, that he was routinely allowed to write columns that went into the paper unseen by colleagues, that he was “encouraged to write controversial stuff,” and that he “really believes” he was fired because of the column, though he said he was not given a specific reason.
In Grants Pass, newsroom veteran Guthrie was let go after penning an acerbic column for the 16,987-circulation, family-owned Daily Courier titled, “When the going gets tough, the tender turn tail” that criticizes a variety of people, especially Bush.
Both Publisher Dennis Mack and Editor Dennis Roler denied that the column specifically led to Guthrie’s ouster, though Roler — who read the column before it was printed and then wrote an opinion-page apology after it ran — conceded it played a role. “We shouldn’t go after somebody personally when talking about public policy. If you descend to that level, it shouldn’t be a level we operate at,” Roler said. Guthrie could not be reached by E&P.
Ironically, a Walter Lippmann quotation that currently sits atop the Daily Courier Web site (http://www.thedailycourier.com) reads, “The theory of a free press is that truth will emerge from free discussion, not that it will be presented perfectly and instantly in any one account.”
Ethics and First Amendment experts contacted by E&P said that while the newspapers had the right to fire the columnists and write apologies, they were concerned that doing so sends a message that unpopular or dissenting views may not be tolerated.
“Certainly, the editors and publishers have a right to demand a certain kind of content in their newspapers,” said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum. “But once they’ve given permission to an individual on staff to express opinions, then generally the widest latitude is given.”
Aly Colon, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., voiced a similar opinion, while also questioning the wisdom of letting columns into the paper unseen by a second pair of eyes, as was the case in Texas. “I think that’s unfair to [Gutting],” he said. “All writers benefit in some fashion from an editor’s feedback.”